The answers are in the dirt.
Every gardener knows that watering plants is a touchy business. Water too much, there’s a risk of disease and waterlogged roots; water too little, and the plants are stressed. While the backyard vegetable gardener might have only a few plants at stake and can risk a bit of trial and error, large commercial growers cannot afford to take chances. These big farms call in the experts.
Such is the situation at Burch Farms, a commercial farm in North Carolina that hired crop consultant Sharon Funderburk of Coney Creek Agronomics to advise on irrigation of its pepper fields. The farm is experimenting with a system for growing 150 acres of jalapeño, bell, banana, and other types of peppers under plastic, and wants to fine-tune the irrigation system for optimal yield and resource allocation.
Crop consultants like Funderburk use their knowledge of specific crops, irrigation techniques, soil characteristics, insects, pests, weeds, and other factors to help growers increase yield, save money, and operate more efficiently. According to Funderburk, crop consultants “provide information services, and we rely on concrete data collection in the field.” As part of her assessment at Burch Farms, she is using a battery-powered HOBO Micro Station data logger with a soil moisture probe from Massachusetts-based Onset(www.onsetcomp.com).
At Burch Farms, the rows of peppers are under black plastic, and the transplanted plants grow up through holes in the material. The cover helps to warm the soil and cut down on weeds and disease, but the challenge is in the watering scheme. Water is distributed to the plants via underground irrigation hoses, but it can also enter through the open soil between the rows, along the machinery access tracks, and through the plant stem holes.
The trick is to get the right amount of water to the plants’ roots for optimal growth, health, and other factors such as flowering and fruit set. “It’s difficult for humans to quantitatively monitor moisture content near roots,” Funderburk explains, and that’s made more difficult when you can’t see the soil surface. “By using the data logger, we’re trying to better quantify how we’re using our irrigation.”
Funderburk set out a soil moisture probe in the field, connected it to a HOBO Micro Station, and configured the system to sample data every 20 minutes around the clock. The 4-channel logger can accept probes that measure soil moisture, temperature, rainfall, leaf wetness, wind speed, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), and others.
She chose Onset’s HOBO Micro Station for several reasons. Its plug-and-play configuration makes it easy to set up, and the accompanying HOBOware software allows the user to designate sampling interval and start time, as well as download and graph data with a few clicks of a mouse.
Funderburk downloads the Burch Farms Micro Station data to a laptop via a cable in the field, but Onset also offers a data shuttle option, as well as various remote communications options.
The Burch Farms pilot study is still in its early stages, but Funderburk hopes that the logger’s data will yield valuable information about what happens to soil moisture levels after a thunderstorm, for example, or how they change as the plants grow and require more water. Using this data, she aims to give advice on watering schemes that will ultimately help Burch Farms make good decisions about its pepper crops.
Funderburk emphasizes that farmers are traditionally independent and self-sufficient people, and the more knowledge they have, the more likely they can retain that independence. She feels fortunate to be able to work with innovative growers, and sees data loggers as valuable tools in assessing and implementing new techniques.
“I think that we will find that they’ll help us reduce our inputs in terms of water and energy and probably fertilizer, eventually, and they’ll give us a more quantitative basis to stand on rather than [relying upon] evaluations by different people at different times,” she explains. “We’re very excited about the application of this technology to our farming system.”
The answers are in the dirt.